Many years ago there lived a very celebrated czar. He had two sons and a beautiful daughter. This daughter lived in a high tower until she was twenty years of age. She was much beloved by the czar and czarina, and was a great favourite with her nurses and waiting-women. But not a single prince or knight had seen her, as she was never allowed to leave the tower, or to breathe the air of freedom. Her name was Vasilisa with the Golden Tress.
Vasilisa had many handsome dresses and rich jewels, but she was weary of them; the tower was confined, and sad and oppressed, she sighed for a change of scene. She had long, thick hair, of a golden hue, which was plaited into a single tress reaching to her feet: hence she was called Vasilisa with the Golden Tress.
News flies quickly over the wide world. Many czars, hearing of the princess’s beauty, sent ambassadors to her father with offers of marriage. The czar was in no hurry; but when the proper time arrived, he sent messengers to all parts of the world to announce that the Princess Vasilisa would select a husband, and he therefore invited czars and princes to his court. Then he went to the tower, and told the beautiful Vasilisa what he had done.
The princess was greatly pleased, and looking through the golden bars of her chamber on to the beautiful garden full of flowers, she asked permission to go there with her maids to play.
“Father,” she said, “I have never seen God’s world, nor walked on the grass, nor among the flowers; nor have I ever seen your royal palace. Allow me to play in the garden with my nurses and maids.”
The czar gave his permission at once. The beautiful Vasilisa descended from the high tower, and went into the courtyard; the door was opened, and the princess found herself in a green meadow which gradually rose to a steep hill; the hill was covered with trees, and the meadow with many coloured flowers. The princess plucked the lovely flowers as she went on, and ran a little in advance of her attendants. All at once there arose a strong wind, such as was neither known nor heard of before, such a wind as was never remembered by the oldest people,—it blew a perfect hurricane. In a moment the wind lifted the princess up and carried her away. The attendants screamed; some ran away in terror, others looked helplessly around them, and saw how the wind bore the beautiful Vasilisa with the Golden Tress out of their sight. It carried her over many countries and deep rivers, through three kingdoms into a fourth, which belonged to a terrible dragon.
The women ran into the palace, and falling on their knees before the czar, cried piteously,—
“Have mercy, and do not punish us! The wind has carried away our light—the beautiful Vasilisa with the Golden Tress—we know not whither!” And they told him all that had happened. The czar was very angry with them, and deeply grieved at the loss of his daughter; nevertheless, he forgave them all. On the following morning the foreign princes arrived, and seeing what grief was depicted on the czar’s countenance, they enquired the cause of it.
“Woe is me!” cried the unhappy czar, “the wind has carried away my dear daughter Vasilisa with the Golden Tress, and I know not whither she has gone!” And he told them all that had happened.
When the princes heard this story they thought the czar had changed his mind, and no longer wished his daughter to marry; they therefore hastened into the tower formerly occupied by the princess, and searched everywhere, but could not find her.
The czar dismissed his visitors with all due honour, and gave a rich present to each of them; they mounted their horses and returned to their own countries.
The two young princes, brothers of Vasihsa, seeing the tears of their father and mother, said to them,—
“Father, and you, mother, give us your blessing, and permit us to go in search of your daughter and our sister.”
“My dear sons,” cried the afflicted czar, “where would you go?”
“We will go, father, in every direction; wherever the road will take us,—where the birds fly, and our eyes will guide us. Perhaps we shall find her.”
The czar blessed them, and the czarina made everything ready for their journey; they all wept at parting, and then the princes set forth on their search. But whether they would have to travel near or far; whether for a long or a short time, the princes knew not.
They travelled for one year, they travelled for two years, and they passed through three kingdoms. Then, at a distance, they could see dark, high mountains, and among them a sandy wilderness, which was the country of the Dragon. The princes asked everywhere of those who passed by,—
“Have you heard or seen where the Princess Vasilisa with the Golden Tress is?” Everywhere the people answered, “We have neither seen nor heard where she is.” Having thus replied, they went on their way.
The princes approached a large town; on the road thither they saw an old, lame man on crutches, carrying a wallet, who asked them for alms. The princes stopped, gave him some silver money, and enquired whether he had seen, or heard of, the Princess Vasilisa, the Unveiled Beauty with the Golden Tress.
“My young friends,” answered the old man, “I see you are wanderers from a foreign land. Our czar, the Dragon, has forbidden us to talk with strangers. We may not tell to any one that the wind has brought a beautiful princess to this town.”
When the princes heard that their sister was so near to them, they spurred their flagging steeds and galloped to the palace. It was truly a palace! It stood on a single silver pillar, and was made all of pure gold; the roof which covered it was of precious stones. The stairs leading to the entrance door spread out like two wings, but ran into one at the top; they were made of rare pearls. At that moment the beautiful Vasilisa was looking out of a window with golden bars, and recognising her brothers she screamed with delight. She then ordered them to be secretly admitted. Happily the Dragon was away, as the princess was greatly afraid lest he should see them; but no sooner had the princes come in than the silver pillar began to groan, the stairs to spread out, the roof to sparkle, and the whole castle to tremble and to turn round.
“The Dragon is coming!” cried the terrified princess. “At his approach the palace turns round and round. Hide, brothers, hide!”
No sooner had she uttered these words than the Dragon rushed hissing in, and demanded in a terrible voice, “Who is here?”
“We are here!” answered the princes fearlessly. “We have come for our sister Vasilisa.”
“O-ho!” cried the Dragon, flapping his wings. “Since you have come to take your sister away, it will not be for nothing if I kill you. But, although you are the brothers of Vasilisa, you are no very terrible knights.” And hissing and roaring he seized one of the brothers with his wings and hurled him against the other. The courtiers came in, took up the dead princes, and threw them into a deep ditch.
The princess burst into tears. Vasilisa would neither eat, nor drink, nor look upon the beautiful world around her. Three days thus passed away; but as she did not die, her resolution failed her, and she determined to live; she regretted to lose her beauty; she listened to the calls of hunger, and on the fourth day took some food.
The princess now began to think how she might possibly escape from the Dragon. One day she said to him coaxingly,—
“Dear Dragon, your strength is great, your wings far spreading and powerful; can no one withstand you?”
“My time is not yet come,” said the Dragon. “It was written at the hour of my birth that the only being who could withstand me would be Ivan the Pea, grown up from a pea.”
The Dragon laughed as he said this, not anticipating such an antagonist. The strong put confidence in their strength; but what is said in jest will sometimes become a truth.
Meanwhile, the czarina sorrowed for the loss of her daughter and of her two sons. One day she went with her ladies-in-waiting into the garden to try to amuse herself. It was hot, and the czarina became very thirsty. In the garden there was a beautiful well of spring water, flowing into a white marble basin. The czarina dipped a golden cup into the basin, and, drinking hastily, swallowed a pea with the water. In the course of time the czarina had a son, and he was called Ivan the Pea. He grew up not by years but by hours. He was a handsome boy,—strong and plump, full of spirit and play, ever laughing and springing on the sands, and daily increasing in strength.
At ten years of age, Ivan the Pea was a tall, powerful knight. He asked whether he had any sisters or brothers; and upon hearing that his sister Vasilisa had been carried away by the wind, and that his two brothers who went to seek her had never returned, he begged his parents to permit him to go also in search of them all.
“My dear son!” cried the czar and czarina, “you are still too young. Your brothers went away and never returned; if you leave us, you also will be lost.”
“No,” answered Ivan the Pea; “I shall not be lost. I desire of all things to find my brothers and sister.”
His parents endeavoured to dissuade him from going, but all in vain. At last they gave their consent, blessed him with tears in their eyes, and bade him adieu.
Ivan the Pea set forth on his journey. He travelled for one day, he travelled for two; towards evening he entered a gloomy forest. In this forest there was a hut on hen’s legs, shaken by the wind, and turning round and round. Following old custom and nursery tradition, Ivan blew upon it, saying,—
“Hut, hut, turn about, with your back to the forest and your front to me.”
The hut immediately turned itself round with its front towards him. An old woman was looking out of the window, and she asked, “Whom have we here?”
Ivan bowed to her, and enquired whether she had observed which way the wind was in the habit of carrying beautiful girls.
“Ah, my son,” said the old woman, coughing and looking hard at Ivan, “the wind has troubled me dreadfully. It is now a hundred and twenty years that I have lived in this hut, without ever once leaving it; it will kill me some day. You must know though that it is not the wind that is in fault, but the Dragon.”
“Which is the way to him?”
“Take care; the Dragon will swallow you up.”
“We shall see.”
“Be mindful of your head, good knight,” continued the old woman, shaking her toothless gums, “and promise me that, if you return safely, you will bring me some of the water from the Dragon’s palace, in which, if I wash myself I shall be made young again.”
“I promise; I will bring you some of the water, grandmother.”
“I take your word for it. And now, my dear son, go towards the sunset; after a year’s journeying you will arrive at the Fox’s mountain; then ask the way to the Dragon’s kingdom.”
“Farewell, my son.”
Ivan went towards the setting sun. A story is soon told, but a difficult work is not so soon completed. Having passed through three kingdoms he arrived at the Dragon’s dominions. Before the gates of the city he saw an old, blind, and lame beggar with a wallet. Having given the beggar some alms, Ivan the Pea asked him whether in that city there did not live a young princess, called Vasilisa with the Golden Tress?
“Yes,” said the beggar; “but we are forbidden to tell of it.”
Upon hearing that his sister was indeed there, Ivan went at once to the palace. At that moment the beautiful Vasilisa with the Golden Tress was watching for the coming of the Dragon from the window. Seeing a young knight approaching, she sent to him secretly to learn his name, and to know whether he was not sent by her father or mother. When she heard that it was Ivan, her youngest brother, whom she had never seen before, the princess rushed out of the palace, and called to him with tears in her eyes,—
“Run, dearest brother! Fly from this place. The Dragon will soon be here, and will kill you!”
“Dearest sister, I am not afraid of the Dragon, nor of all his strength.”
“Are you then the Pea, and therefore able to withstand him?”
“Wait a moment, sister; let me have something to drink first.”
“And what will you drink, brother?”
“A bucketful of mead.”
Vasilisa ordered a bucket of mead to be brought in, and Ivan drank it at a draught, without even once stopping to take breath; he then asked for more. The surprised princess ordered some more mead to be brought in.
“Now, brother,” she said, “I believe that you are Ivan the Pea.”
“Give me something to eat, dear sister, and then let me rest after my journey.”
The princess then directed her servants to bring in a strong chair. Ivan sat down upon it, and it immediately broke into pieces. The attendants then brought another chair, still stronger, covered and joined together with iron. When Ivan sat down, it creaked and bent under him.
“Oh brother!” cried the princess, “that is the Dragon’s own seat.”
“It seems then,” said Ivan smiling, “that I am heavier than he.”
He then got up, went to an old sage, who was smith to the court, and ordered an iron staff to be made, to weigh five hundred puds (a pud is 40 lbs). The smiths set to work; hammered the iron night and day amid a shower of red-hot sparks, and in forty hours finished the staff. It required the united strength of fifty men to bring it to the castle. Ivan the Pea lifted it up with one hand, and threw it into the air. The air whistled as the staff passed through: it and disappeared in the clouds.
The inhabitants ran from place to place panic-stricken; they were afraid that the staff, falling down again, would crush their city into ruins, then roll into the sea, which would overflow and drown them all.
Prince Ivan gave orders that the people should let him know when the iron staff was seen falling again to the ground, and then went quietly into the palace. The terrified people fled away from the principal square. Some looked from their doors and windows to see whether the iron beam was about to descend. They waited one, they waited two hours; at the end of the third, word was sent to the palace that the staff was coming down. Ivan the Pea ran into the square, stretched out his hand and caught the staff as it fell. It came down with such force that it bent in his hand. The prince straightened it on his knee, and then returned to the castle.
Suddenly a dreadful hissing noise was heard; the Dragon was coming. His horse, the wind, flew with the swiftness of an arrow, vomiting forth flames. At a first glance the Dragon looked like a knight; but his head was that of a dragon. Usually at his approach, even if he were miles away, the palace would tremble, and move from place to place; now the Dragon observed, for the first time, that it did not stir. There must be a stranger within. The Dragon paused an instant—hissed and roared; his horse, the wind, shook his black mane and spread out his monstrous wings. The Dragon rushed to the palace, and the palace did not stir an inch.
“O-ho!” roared the Dragon, “I have to do with an enemy; perhaps it is the Pea.”
Prince Ivan soon appeared.
“I will put you in the palm of one hand, clap my other hand upon you, and crush you to atoms!” cried the Dragon.
“We shall see,” said Ivan, approaching with the staff.
“Begone from my castle!” roared the Dragon in a fury.
“Begone, you!” answered Ivan, lifting up his staff.
The Dragon flew up in the air that he might strike Prince Ivan and pierce him with his lance; but he missed his aim. The prince sprang aside, and exclaiming, “It is now my turn!” threw the staff at the Dragon with such force that the blow broke and scattered him into a thousand fragments. The staff pierced the earth, and passed through two kingdoms into a third.
The people threw up their caps with joy, and chose Ivan to be their czar. But Ivan, as a reward for the sage smith, who in so short a time had made him such a staff, ordered the old man to be called before him, and said to the people,—
“This is your czar; obey him for good as you once obeyed the Dragon for evil.”
Then Ivan took some of the water of death and of the water of life, and sprinkled them over the bodies of his brothers. The young men rose up, and rubbing their eyes, exclaimed,—
“Heaven knows how long we have slept!”
“My dear brothers” said Ivan, embracing them tenderly, “without my help you would have slept for ages.”
Then Ivan took some of the water of the Dragon, ordered a ship to be built, and sailing on the river Swan, with the beautiful Vasilisa with the Golden Tress, he passed through three kingdoms into a fourth,—his own country. He remembered the old woman in the hut, and gave her some of the water. When the old woman had washed herself in it she became young again; she sang and danced with joy, and accompanied Prince Ivan on his journey.
The czar and czarina received their son Ivan with great joy and honour. They sent messengers to all parts of the world, announcing that their daughter, the beautiful Vasilisa with the Golden Tress, had safely returned home. There were great rejoicings: bells rang merrily, trumpets sounded, drums were beaten, guns were fired. Vasilisa obtained a husband and Prince Ivan a wife. At the marriage feast there were mountains of meat and rivers of mead. They ordered four crowns to be made, and celebrated two weddings at once.
The great-grandfathers of our great-grandfathers were there; they drank of the mead and left some of it for us, but we have never tasted it. This, however, we heard: that after the death of the czar, Ivan the Pea ascended the throne; ruled the people with great glory; and the fame of Czar the Pea has been remembered from generation to generation.